Chile: On the trail of big cats in South America

Puma sightings can be guaranteed in Southern Patagonia – but only if you know where to look. Gabriel O'Rorke has expert help

'There was one right here about an hour ago!" says Torres del Paine park ranger Marta, delivering with gusto the news that we had just missed a puma. Kicking ourselves for having stopped for food en route, we keep our eyes peeled as we continue on to Lago Pehoe, a blue glacier lake in front of the spectacular granite "towers" of the Paine mountain range.

Our destination is Hosteria Pehoe, a simple hotel with an outstanding location on an island that can only be reached by footbridge. It was a 90-minute, 110km (70-mile) drive north from Punta Arenas airport, and, when we arrived, the evening sky looked as if it had been filled in with pink highlighter.

Most people come to Southern Patagonia for hiking, biking and kayaking, but mine is a strictly puma-related trip. I am on a "guaranteed puma" tour with SouthWild, a Latin American adventure travel company which offers a 100 per cent assurance that its guests will see at least one puma during a four-night stay in Torres del Paine National Park.

"You will see a puma most days if you're diligent about the hours," says Charlie Munn, who runs SouthWild. "It's not luck. Put in time at the right time and it's highly likely you will see them each day."

Native to the Americas, these slender, tan-coloured predators measure almost three-feet in height, making them the world's fourth-largest cat.

So confident is SouthWild of its puma promise, that it offers two nights and three days without charge (claimable within two years) should guests fail to see one during their initial stay. This makes puma spotting sound easy, as though all of the park's 150,000 annual visitors ought to see a large cat. But this is far from the case – partly because pumas are timid, nocturnal and solitary, but also because, for some inexplicable reason, no other hotel or tour operator offers puma tours.

And no, it's not as simple as just putting in the hours. SouthWild has also brought in the experts (namely park ranger and mountain-cat fanatic José Vargas Sandoval) to make sure its guarantee is fulfilled.

Rising before the sun, at 3.30am, I run across the footbridge where Charlie and José are waiting. José, who to my amusement is decked out in Puma-branded clothing, is alarmingly alert, given the hour, and laughs away as he tells me puma stories: "The other day a puma passed 10 metres from a German photographer. The guy didn't even see him, he was so busy looking at another puma in the distance!"

We pass Lago Mellizos (which means, oddly, "lake of the non-identical twins") and suddenly José switches into business mode. The windows are rolled down, his torch is fired up and he starts systematically spotlighting the dark hillsides. Maybe it's beginner's luck, or maybe José really does have a sixth sense, but within half an hour we find ourselves open-mouthed, gazing at two pumas on the roadside.

"They're young ones, less than a year... brothers," whispers José.

One is curious and approaches us, coming within two metres of the car. After an intense minute of looking right at us, he seems to decide we are uninteresting and playfully runs across to his more cautious brother. The pair then slinks off into the shadows.

José fills in time by returning to his big-cat tales, this time about a group of tourists who left their car door open and came back to find a puma in the passenger seat. Then 10 minutes later we catch sight of the brothers once more, their agile bodies gliding up and over a hill on the opposite side of the road.

As the sun rises, colour seeps into the park; and as the pumas go off to sleep, so their prey wakes up. Guanacos are everywhere. They are Patagonian llamas and are unique among their genus for having hair, not wool. They pose against mountain peaks, skip in single file across the rocky terrain, look after fluffy babies, and emit the occasional high-pitched alert if they see a puma.

Keeping a lookout is the job of male guanacos; they stand on high points overlooking the hilly terrain and belt out a donkey-like noise whenever a large cat comes into sight. Their signals come in handy for puma-spotting tourists.

The next morning we are up at dawn, and once more our efforts are rewarded as we spot a female cat on the hillside alongside us. We stop the car and take pictures like paparazzi as she crosses the road in front of us, walks down to the lake and vanishes from view.

By day three I've decided to have a "lie in", and José greets me with a "good afternoon" when I turn up at 4.50am. There's another car on the road this morning, a solo Brit on the hunt for pumas but with no guide and no luck thus far. We pass him by, turn a corner and suddenly hear the guanaco cry. We scan the hills and, sure enough, three pumas appear on a ridge before us.

After that we have plenty of non-puma sightings: we watch foxes chasing each other in the long grass, see a couple of skunks eating a hare, admire condors as they float past, and take pictures of Darwin's rheas (grey South American ostriches) running along the roadside, followed by lines of gawky chicks.

Nevertheless, and despite the fact that SouthWild has more than fulfilled its cat quota, I can't help but want to see just one more puma.

In the afternoon of my last day, I pull on three pairs of trousers and head out into the fearsome winds of the Torres del Paine. Finding a sheltered lookout among yellow gorse bushes, we settle in, and, by 8pm, Charlie is gently snoring. Then, as if it is saying goodbye, a puma arrives on a distant hilltop. She starts calling and two cubs appear against the lake. The sun sets behind them, blazing their silhouettes into the landscape.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Gabriel O'Rorke flew with LAN Airlines (0800 977 6100;, which flies from Heathrow via Madrid with prices starting from £850 return. Other options include Air France (0870 142 4343; from Heathrow via Paris, Iberia (0870 609 0500; via Madrid, and Air Canada (0871 220 1111; via Toronto.

Staying there

SouthWild (00 51 1422 9888; southwild. com) has packages from £1,895 per person for a five-day, four-night trip in Torres del Paine National Park. The price includes transfers to and from Punta Arenas, accommodation at Hosteria Pehoe (00 562 235 0252;, transport for two puma searches per day, English-speaking naturalist guide, expert puma tracker, all meals, and the "puma guarantee".

Further information

Chile Tourist Board:

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Jennifer Lawrence was among the stars allegedly hacked
peopleActress and 100 others on 'master list' after massive hack
Radamel Falcao
footballManchester United agree loan deal for Monaco striker Falcao
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
A man shoots at targets depicting a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a shooting range in the center of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv
voicesIt's cowardice to pretend this is anything other than an invasion
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Day In a Page

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor